Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The HD Radio Hall of Shame

Here it comes again. When the XM/SIRIUS satellite radio merger was finally approved (read: when the NAB ran out of roadblocks to throw in its path), an open letter to FCC chairman Kevin Martin arrived. Senators John Kerry, Claire McCaskill, and Ben Cardin were so concerned that the public has access to commercial radio that they wanted the FCC to mandate HD Radio tuners be included with every satellite radio tuner.

That didn't work. So now Representative Edward Markey and five other co-sponsoring chowderheads are bringing H.R. 7157 to the floor of the House. The bill will require satellite radio receivers have -- you guessed it -- HD Radio receivers built in. As Markey said:

"Millions of Americans today rely on local broadcast radio for news, public safety bulletins, sports, weather, traffic and other information. As the broadcast radio industry migrates to digital broadcasting technology, this legislation will ensure that consumers are able to readily receive free service through consumer electronics systems that are otherwise receiving satellite digital audio radio and traditional AM or FM stations.”
Does your head hurt yet? Let's look at that again. So this law would ensure that people who have paid for satellite radio will have an analog AM/FM tuner and HD Radio built into the receiver they buy -- which makes those receivers more expensive. And remember that the people who subscribe to satellite radio are paying for it because free radio isn't meeting their needs.

After four years of aggressive marketing and hoopla, awareness of HD Radio is a little over half of the population, and actual sales still in the gutter.

So where do all of these congressional leaders get the idea that HD Radio is central to consumer protection against a monopolistic satellite radio industry?

In 2007, the iBiquity Digital Corporation begged the FCC to mandate HD Radio receivers in every satellite radio tuner. iBiquity, the company that holds the monopoly on the technology. iBiquity, the company that isn't making a lot of money now because no one's buying HD Radio tuners, but would make a lot more if HD radio tuners were required in every satellite radio unit (even if they were never used).

Talk about an industry bail-out. This proposed mandate is neither needed nor wanted by the consumer. It's there for one reason only -- to generate business for iBiquity through legislation.

So shame on iBiquity for trying to make the government increase revenues to their monopoly. And shame on each and every congresscritter who's helping them do it.

- Ralph

Day 107 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Zeppelin Dreams

Stephane Rousson failed on his attempt to cross the English Channel this weekend. In a zeppelin. Powered by himself.

The issue was the wind, not the design of the craft. I have to admit I have a soft spot in my head for lighter-than-air craft, especially zeppelins. While the story's interesting in and of itself, it caught my attention because the design looked a little familiar.

Here's the Zeppy, Rousson's pedal-powered airship.

And here's Jule Verne's pedal-powered airship, as depicted in the 1958 Czech film, "The Fabulous World of Jules Verne."

Hats off to Rousson and his team, for bringing to life days of futures past.

- Ralph

Day 106 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Friday, September 26, 2008

slotMusic -- Abuse Your Illusion

So SanDisk and EMI, Sony/BMG, Warner and Universal Music announce the arrival of slotMusic. One of the leading manufacturers of embedded memory devices and the four major record labels are coming together to bring albums loaded on special miniSD cards to market.


Thought not.

I expect it will meet with the same crashing silence as Ringles.

The problem is the serious disconnect between what consumers want, and what the labels are prepared to give them. The major labels want to sell physical product -- what music's on it really doesn't matter that much. The customers want to buy music -- whether or not it's attached to any kind of physical product is irrelevant.

See how this is going to end badly?

Why do the majors continue to cling to the concept of selling physical units instead of chunks of audio data? Because their whole structure is based on that manufacturing-based business model used by soft drink companies, car companies, and many, many others. But music has shifted to more of an information technology business, which uses a different structure, different skill sets, and a different business model.

Almost ten years into the digital music revolution, and we get slotMusic.

Well, you can't turn a charging dinosaur on a dime, you know. But it would be nice if those riding it could at least steer the beast towards the right general direction.

- Ralph

Day 102 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Arcania International on WVTF -- Part 4 (tape delay)

Here's an excellent example of the value of a radio station's website.

As the distributor of Arcania International releases, I've been very interested in a series public radio station WVTF has been running. Reporter Connie Stevens has been profiling various artists featured in Arcania's "Ol' Virginia Soul" and "Aliens, Psychos and Wild Things" compilation CDs of Virginia soul groups and garage bands of the 1960's. These "Captive Audio" news segments have made for interesting listening -- even for those not interested in these musical genres.

I missed the broadcast of the latest installment -- it aired back in July. But because WVTF archives their news features, I could access it, listen to it -- and now share it with others by linking to it.

In that episode, Stevens tells the story of the Phantoms from Abingdon, Virginia (found on "Aliens, Psychos and Wild Things, Volume 2"). Brent Hosier of Arcania International and guitarist Herb Proffitt talk about the Phantom's only recording, and how it was saved by modern technology. But there's more to the story...

And thanks to WVTF's website, that story can be heard again and again.

- Ralph

Day 102 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Use Your Allusion

I was in a meeting yesterday, and we were trying to decide exactly how to handle a particularly messy issue. It involved personality conflicts that had grown out of real or imagined slights -- all of which drained time and energy away from the primary task of the committee. But we couldn't move forward with our job until these other issues were addressed.

Finally, someone (not me) said we should perhaps just cut the Gordian Knot. Some of us expressed agreement, the rest had blank looks.

Yes, another classical allusion had been used. And, for those who knew the reference, most effectively as well.

If you're not familiar with the story, in ancient times the Gordian Knot was considered such a complex knot that it was impossible to untie. Alexander the Great, wishing to untether a cart secured by the Gordian Knot, didn't bother to try untying the impossible knot -- he simply unsheathed his sword and cut the rope. The Gordian Knot was still intact, but no longer an impedance to the use of the cart.

Which was the point my colleague wanted to make at the meeting? If we can't solve this problem (which wasn't our main task), let's cut loose the people causing it and move on.

And that's the value of having a basic knowledge of the classics. Clear communication in a small number of words. After all, "Cutting the Gordian Knot" is only four words --and look at how many it took to explain the phrase.

- Ralph

Day 101 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

WJMA -- Past and Future

There's an interesting correlation between the "golden age" of Radio Orange (WJMA-FM), and the current direction radio needs to move in.

Here's the past:

In the late 1970's, WJMA had a virtual lock on local news. They had two reporters, one who worked primarily in the mornings, the other mainly at night, with an overlap during the day. Between them, they could cover any local government or other important community activity that happened during the week.

They also had five stringers, who phoned in reports from the five surrounding counties. Each stringer gave a weekly report. Each report ran on a certain weekday, so listeners knew, for example, that the Culpeper Report ran on Mondays, the Greene Country Report ran on Tuesdays, and so on.

Arch Harrison, the station owner, offered his own op-ed segment, "Postscript to the News," which ranged far and wide over a variety of topics, of local and national interest. There was a sports director who interviewed the high school coaches of the five counties -- each coach's report airing on a certain day of the week. Sports fans knew that Monday was Orange's Coach K., Tuesday was Madison's coach Eddie Dean and so on.

There was also a public affairs program, "Monday at One," where guests of interest to the community were interviewed -- local politicians, charity heads, visiting dignitaries, event organizers, and others.

Was all that news necessary? You bet. Folks within the listening area of Radio Orange knew that if they passed an accident during the day, they could tune into the next news cast and find out what happened.

Was it worth it for the station? Yes, in many ways. Every single segment -- the county reports, the coaches' corners, the newscast, Monday at One -- all of it was sponsored and generated money for the station. And it built and sustained audiences.

Folks interested in local sports listened to Radio Orange. People wanting to keep up with their community listened to Radio Orange. People wanting to get news before it showed up in the weekly paper listened to Radio Orange.

Here's the future:

All of that valuable content that the old Radio Orange created on a daily basis would be solid gold on a station website.

First off, all of those special segments could live as downloadable audio files on the website -- and they could all be sponsored. They could also be repurposed as podcasts. I would love to subscribe to a "Postscript to the News" daily podcast. And those, too, could be sponsored.

Imagine the "Coaches Corner" as a video podcast (and as a video posted to the website).

Now the old Radio Orange main newscasts went on for a while -- no surprise given all they had to broadcast. A shorter form of the interviews and stories could run over the air, with the tagline for each story being the same: "to hear more, go to our website, WJMA.com/news."

The "Monday at One" segments could also be made  available as downloadable audio -- and if the studio setup was relatively static, a camera or two could be permanently positioned to record the interviews. Not only would video make for much more compelling content (read: more downloads, more traffic, more ad revenue), but there might an opportunity to sell the footage to other news outlets, such as the regional TV stations.

I like to think that if the creative, innovative staff that served the station so well during its golden age was currently producing the same quality content, all of this would have already happened.

So what's happening on the website of the current owners of WJMA? Well, we've been staring at a placeholder with no links for 100 days now.

Sometimes the good old days really are.

- Ralph

Day 100 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, September 22, 2008

WJMA -- Its history

The website devoted to the history of WJMA is without question a labor of love. This online museum was created by Ross Hunter, former program director for the station.

It's a site well worth exploring, even if you don't remember the golden days of "Radio Orange." Anyone curious about radio operation, or life in Central Virginia, or even those just looking for a good story will find lots to look through on the site.

In addition to an overall history of the station, there's plenty of source material documenting day-to-day workings of this small, independent radio station, and even some audio samples. And there's a chat room, which has become something of a living history archive as former employees share experiences and add their information to the site.

Ross Hunter's recently asked for help, putting out the word through letters to several regional newspapers. Hunter writes:

A year from now, in September of 2009, 60 years will have passed since WJMA-AM radio in Orange signed on the air for the first time. 

Over the last couple of years I’ve been involved in a project to document WJMA’s history and locate former employees. To date more than 300 former employees have been identified and about half of them have been located. Almost 90 former WJMA staffers are part of a Yahoo list serve exchanging memories about WJMA. 

A Web site to collect the history of the radio station has been set up. Information is being adding to the online collection as it becomes available. Go to wjma.radiohistory.net to see what has been collected thus far. 

I’m writing today in a effort to locate more WJMA history. Anything you might have: pictures, newspaper ads, newspaper articles, prizes, bumper stickers, audio tape, videotape, movies...it’s all valuable and I’d love to have an opportunity to copy it. Your originals will be returned. Personal stories are also welcome. 

Please contact me via e-mail at wjmainfo@radiohistory.net or by phone from 6 to 10 p.m. at (540) 672-2822. And if you are a former employee and have not yet been contacted, please do get in touch. 

Much has changed in the broadcast world since WJMA AM first went on the air. In 1949 WJMA was an AM only radio station with just 250 watts of power. While the call letters WJMA now belong to an FM station, the former WJMA-AM is now WVCV, but is still broadcasting at 1340 on the AM dial, just where it’s been since noon on Sept. 10, 1949.

Ross Hunter
WJMA 1971 to 1986

There's been some response to the letters, but of course, not everyone's still in the area. So I'm happy to contribute some space to help get the word out.

And no, I didn't make a mistake in the title -- that apostrophe's absent for a reason.

- Ralph

Day 99 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Compare yourself to the Accent Archive

Dick Van Dyke's chimney sweep in "Mary Poppins" was a great character, but real Londoners cringe whenever they hear his attempt at a Cockney accent. It works both ways, though -- I think most people in London imagine all Americans sound like George Bush, drive pickup trucks, and enjoy shooting beer cans with shotguns (but that's another story...).

If you want to see how people really sound, check out this handy little website. The good folks at George Mason University's English department have recorded almost 1000 native and non-native English speakers speaking a short elicitation paragraph, to wit:

Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.

Browse around and check out speakers from different regions and different countries. Interesting stuff!


P.S. -- My accent seems to match up to samples from Pittsburgh.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Thanks for Asking

Yesterday I shared the Alexa.com traffic reports for the WJMAFM.com website. It demonstrated how many links drive traffic on the interconnected web -- even if it links to a dead site.

But, some asked offline, what about this site? How has the traffic for "CE Conversations" changed over the last three months? Fair question.

Over the past three months, our ranking's gone up 3.9 million positions, and our reach has grown 487%. Sounds super -- but remember it's only ten times the reach of WJMA's placeholder page.

(click on image to enlarge)

Are there things we can do to maximize growth? Sure.

One tried and true method is to publish a single-subject blog. If we only talked about radio, or the Internet, or comics, or music, or politics, or any of the other goofy things we blog about here, our traffic would be much, much higher. But most of the content I produce professionally elsewhere is tightly focused -- so I'm willing to trade optimal traffic numbers for the opportunity to write about whatever I want.

And the web is social. The more blogs we link to and the more comments we leave on other blogs, the more links (and traffic) we get back. However, I'm not about to start posting comments on other blogs willy-nilly just to leave our URL as many places as possible. I'll read the blogs I'm interested in, and occasionally post comments when I have something to share.

So I expect we'll continue to grow, but at a slow pace. And that's fine -- because it means we can keep doing this blog the way we want to. And have some fun in the process.

- Ralph

Day 95 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

563,445 Missed Opportunities

Actually, I don't know exactly how many missed opportunities we're talking about -- but it's a significant amount. Our favorite radio station test case, WJMA here in beautiful Orange, Virginia, pulled their website offline three months ago.

Officially, it was to make way for a new, improved website -- but that was three months ago.

Now here's the interesting thing. According to Alexa.com, which measures web traffic, WJMA's ranking has actually risen 563,445 positions (as of today). The volume of traffic has increased 42%. Of course, page views have dropped -- but then there's only one page to view.

(click on the image to enlarge)

So why is traffic up? Well, a number of sites link to WJMA, including this one. In fact, I've been including a link to WJMA in every post for the past three months.

And all of that increased traffic found.... nothing. There's not even an email address on the placeholder! It's like a steady stream of potential customers make their way to your store, only to find the doors chained and locked. Is that any way to run a business?

As Ken Dardis of Audiographics (and others) continually point out, it's past time for radio stations to move from just being over-the-air broadcasters and become media content providers.
For a business not to have a website these days is like a brick-and-mortar store that only takes cash. It severely limits the business' ability to function.

If nothing else, the past three months have shown the importance of interconnectivity. I don't know how many people went to WJMA because of this blog, how many from the WJMA radio history site, or how many from the various other sites. But every link helped drive traffic to WJMA's site.

Now imagine if Piedmont Communications had launched their updated website three months ago and been able to take advantage of all that traffic.

Then, I think, we'd have a different post.

- Ralph

Day 94 of the WJMA Web Watch. Yes, I'll keep linking. Why not? We'll check the stats again in another three months.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mark Ramsey proposes, the BBC disposes

Mark Ramsey, head of Mercury Media Research outlined in a recent post what radio stations need to do to make the shift from just an over-the-air broadcaster to a media content provider. If I was an under-appreciated cog at a big radio group right now... , I'd pitch my group on a digital video series that can be sponsored.
All at once I would be creating:
A) Content to attract online traffic and engagement
B) NTR ("New" traditional revenue)
C) Stuff for the jocks to talk about on-air
D) A reason for me to be not such an under-appreciated cog anymore
Just theory? Not really. Ramsey was talking about GlamourTV, but there's an even better example for stations. BBC Radio 1 has taken their morning team to Los Angeles, where they're broadcasting live every day.

For this special run "The Chris Moyles Show" has upped its podcast frequency from once a week to one a day. And they're also producing a series of videos.

And they're using the strength of each of these formats (radio, podcasting, and video) to cross-promote each other.

Listen to this segment from Tuesday's program. Chris Moyles and company basically spend the time promoting the videos. But listen to how they do it.

They use audio excerpts from the videos. They build interest and suspense by not revealing how the video ends (you'll just have to watch it). And they play off of the audio clips, creating new content in the process.

Now before you write this off as something only the big boys can do, look at the underlying concept, and ignore the superficial details.

Let's take our favorite test case, WJMA-FM in Orange, Virginia. They certainly don't have the budget of the BBC, but that's not important. They've already shot some video (sort of), so we know they have a potential cameraman. But instead of Los Angeles, JD Slade and the other WJMA jocks could do a live broadcast from the Orange County Fair.

Instead of sending members of the team out to find Jackie Chan's house, JD could go look over the livestock. In both cases, the video camera's rolling. And in both cases there are broadcast professionals in front of the camera who are used to being extemporaniously funny -- and can take advantage of the comedic possibilities of their respective situations.

Now you've got video to post on the website (perhaps with sponsorship?), something for JD Slade and company to play with on their own shows, and -- more importantly -- some compelling reasons for listeners to go to the website, driving up traffic and consequently ad rates.

The Chris Moyles Show has shown how it can be done. Look again at Mark's checklist. Check, check, and check. Anyone getting this?

- Ralph

Day 93 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, September 15, 2008

No Choice for Music

Barry Schwartz’s book, "The Paradox of Choice" outlines an increasingly common aspect of modern life – having too many options. Sometimes when there are too many choices, it’s so difficult to pick one that I continually put off making a decision. Which results in no choice being made at all.

That happened to me recently in a group discussion. Each of us was supposed to name our favorite song. I didn’t know what to say. When it comes to music, I have too many choices.

My number one favorite song? Sorry, don’t have one.

If you’re talking about classical music, my most favorite composition is probably Kurt Hessenberg’s Second Symphony, simply the best-constructed musical composition I’ve ever heard. But if I want something with deep spirituality, then it’s Alan Hovhaness’ “Mysterious Mountain” -- or Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Pilgrim’s Progress.” But then there’s Dowland’s “Can She Excuse My Wrongs?”and the Beethoven first string quartet and, well, the list goes on.

And the same is true of other genres. The number one golden oldie that takes me back to high school? “Things I’d Like to Say” by the New Colony Six. Except when it’s “Prologue” by Chicago. Or Sugarloaf’s “Green-Eyed Lady,” or Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose, or the Ides of March, or any of several other bands.

And if I want to go back to the early sixties, my favorite track is Petula Clark’s “Colour My World” except when it’s the Standells singing “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White, ” or any of a dozen other songs.

Movie soundtracks? My favorite’s Alfred Newman’s How the West Was Won, except when it’s Miklos Rozsa’s King of Kings. Or Erich Korngold’s score for The Adventures of Robin Hood, or Elmer Bernstein’s Hallelujah Trail, or a few others.

Ditto with musicals, soul, funk, pop, rock, new wave, punk, jazz, folk, grime (yes, I have a few favorites here), bluegrass, and even country.

Too many choices. I can’t decide.

So I do the only thing I can. I just enjoy every piece of music on its own merit, and how it meets my needs.

And I never answer the question of what’s my favorite song.
- Ralph

Day 92 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Friday, September 12, 2008

How to Nuke a Chain Letter

As I mentioned yesterday, I have a way of dealing with e-mail chain letters. I think just about everyone's gotten them. Some friend who's excited about just to online seems to be more adept at hitting the forward button than taking the time to actually write a message (this tends to skew older -- grandparents are notorious for this, but they don't have a lock on the behavior).

Whenever I get another update about Microsoft's charity drive, or how the PC police are turning "Sesame Street's" Cookie Monster into the Veggie Monster, I reply to the sender with a link to the Snopes.com page that addresses that particular urban myth.

It usually doesn't stop the emails, though. So the second time I reply in the same fashion.

If the behavior doesn't change, then I do something drastic. Most of these compulsive forwarders aren't savvy enough to blind copy their recipients. Which means I can usually see all the people they're forwarding this to, as well as the long list of people who forwarded the message to my naive friend.

I explain in a polite, but forceful manner, that one shouldn't take everything at face value (especially online) and that one should research such messages before forwarding to avoid wasting people's time. I once again include the Snopes.com citation, and then hit "reply all."

I never know what the fallout is to the sender when their friends and colleagues receive my response (although I can only hope some embarrassment might be part of it). But I never receive another forwarded e-mail from them again.

- Ralph

Day 89 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Truthiness or Consequences

When someone forwards yet another email warning me about high beams being used for gang initiations, someone revealing the Nieman-Marcus secret cookie recipe, or how I should only save the pull tabs from aluminum cans, I politely respond with a link to Snopes.com. They're very good at debunking urban myths, with enough citations that one can check their work.

But what about the current presidential campaign? How do I separate the fact from fiction, and the wheat from the chaff? (And before anyone gets their back up, I'm talking about both parties here and all the major news networks). Pretty much the same way -- I try to go to the source.

I track my representative and senators through OpenCongress.org -- and I also use it to review John McCain's and Barak Obama's congressional careers.

Another really valuable resource is Govtrack.us, an open-source, non-partisan website. It primarily aggregates data, and the designers of the site let you look at the parameters for each stat, so you can decide if its valid or not.

I also rely on FactCheck.org, another non-partisan website. The goal of this site, run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, is simply to compare what the political campaigns are saying, and, well, fact-check the claims. No one's immune - whether it's Sarah Palin's assertion that Alaska provides 20% of America's energy, or Obama's Michigan ad claiming McCain didn't support loan guarantees to the auto industry, FactCheck outlines the case, provides the facts and cites their sources.

Who needs "fair and balanced" coverage? I'll take well-researched and documented, thank you.

- Ralph

Day 88 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ambient awareness in an analog medium

The New York Times magazine featured an article about digital intimacy, and how social media networks sites were connecting people. An interesting concept was articulated that I actually use quite a bit in the analog world.
Social scientists have name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it “ambient awareness.” It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online. In the last year, there has been a boom in tools for “microblogging”: posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing.

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.
So what do I like about the adventure comics in the newspaper? Ambient awareness. While most humor strips reset themselves like “Groundhog Day,” a well-written adventure strip develops and grows over time. And as it does so, it rewards the reader with little bits of information.

Take this sequence from “Prince Valiant,” for example (click on image to enlarge).

For the new reader, it’s an exciting adventure of a medieval sea voyage. But for those with ambient awareness of the strip, there’s more going on here.

Long-time readers know that Aleta is Val’s wife, who went looking for him when he and Nathan (his son) were first kidnapped by the Viking raiders in a sequence started two years ago. They also know that below deck is a representative from the African tribe they recently met (the guardians of King Solomon’s treasure and whose queen is a direct descendant of the Queen of Sheba). They also know that Sir Gawain is on board, Val’s long-time friend and one of his earliest supporters in King Arthur’s court.

Gawain isn’t pictured, but long-time readers know him as a brave knight, and as an aging ladies’ man increasingly concerned about his appearance and fading youth.

And there’s more at stake than just the  lives on this ship. Aleta is Queen of the Misty Isles, a Mediterranean nation that requires guidance to remain free of Byzantium influence (outlined in an adventure with Emperor Justinian several years ago).

In a sense, a sequential strip is something like microblogging. Each panel imparts just a little bit of information, but comprehension builds as panels accumulate. And that’s why I keep reading. It just keeps getting better.

- Ralph

Day 87 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Reviving Classical Allusions -- a Herculean Task

So I was sitting in a meeting the other day, where we looking at how to upgrade our website. We were talking about the amount of work it would take to go in and scrub every single page. I said it would be like cleaning the Augean stables -- and was greeted with blank looks.

Oops. I'd made a classical allusion. It would have been a powerful one, too, if everyone had understood it. Unfortunately, all it did was stop the meeting. I had to explain that cleaning the Augean stables was one of the twelve labors of Hercules.

In Greek mythology, King Augeas owned a large herd of divine cattle given him by the gods. Because they were immune to disease, he never bothered having their stables mucked out. Hercules had to clean out these stables in a day -- a seemingly impossible task (yes, there's a backstory). He did so by simply diverted two rivers from their paths to flood the stables and wash away the manure -- well, Herc was pretty strong.

The metaphor of the Augean stables, the size of the task and the way they were cleaned all beautifully illustrated what I had to say about our web project. And that's why I used it.

Was using the metaphor more trouble that it was worth? Not really. A few more people learned about the story, and it's an allusion I'll use again. Consider it a slight step forward for cultural literacy.

And as Aesop once observed, "slow and steady wins the race."

- Ralph

Day 86 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, September 08, 2008


Is it finally time to retire the Video Music Awards show on MTV? Everything about it seems old, which is the very antithesis of what this lifestyle cable channel is all about.

For those who came in late, MTV started as a cable channel back in 1981. Originally MTV stood for "Music Television" because the channel pretty much played music videos (then a developing artform/marketing tool) 24/7. Over time, the programming changed, to the point where videos seldom make an appearance on the channel.

The original concept of the MTV Video Music Awards was to create a program that was the opposite of the stuffy awards shows like the Oscars and Tonys. And the idea was to showcase music videos -- a format that had no other outlets at the time.

So here we are in 2008. MTV is saluting a format it never airs -- and airs with increasing rarity on MTV2 and VH1. The casual nature of the program where anything could happen has become a tightly controlled reality show where something outrageous MUST happen (like the Madonna/Brittany Spears/Christina Agularia kiss) every time.

But the increasing "outrageousness" of the antics seems to have an air of desperation. Viewership continues to plummet for the program -- a 45% decline over the past two years.

MTV isn't the source for music videos anymore -- YouTube is. Time for MTV to move on -- its audience has.

- Ralph

Day 86 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Congressional Correspondence

A while ago I posted a draft of a letter to my representative.

SoundExchange continues to force Internet broadcasters into bankruptcy through ruinous royalty rates -- with Pandora.com about ready to go under. Two bills -- H.R.2060 in the House and S.1315 in the Senate -- await action that could adjust the rates back to something equitable to both sides.

OK, I know this isn't the only thing facing our congresscritters, but we're not talking some massive bailout here. Just set the rates to something realistic and let the industry grow from there. One vote and everyone can get back to taking their partisan potshots.

So, I've printed out the letters to my representative and two senators. In the mail, they go. Let's see if I can get a better response by using snail mail than e-mail (which I used last time). Better yet, maybe we'll see some action.

Bombs away, dream babies.

- Ralph

Day 83 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A Radio Vignette

The other day something happened to me that made a major media trend personal. I had to shuttle my daughter to a place only about 6 minutes away by car. We hopped in, and she turned on our local Top 40 station, Hot 101.9 FM.

During the trip, we heard a commercial for a car dealer, a commercial for a furniture store, a promo for a weekend show, a station bumper (a short ID), a commercial for a fast food chain, and a commercial for something else. We arrived at our destination without having heard a single note of music (save the music beds for the commercials).

After dropping her off, I headed home. I turned off the radio and turned on my iPod. It picked up the "This Week in Media" (TWIM) podcast that I had started listening to the earlier right where I had left off. I listened to six minutes of in-depth conversation about new media business models before arriving home.

And lest you think this is a totally unfair comparison of commercial vs. non-commercial programming, be aware that TWIM also has advertising. That particular episode was sponsored by Audible.com and Gotomypc.com. Both commercials were embedded in the program. Rather than used pre-produced spots, the ad copy was read by the show host and commented on by the panel. In essence, the ads became a continuation of the panel's conversation.

Theoretically, I could have fast-forwarded through the commercials, but since the conversation flowed in and out of them it would have been kind of a pain -- and the panel made the spots interesting enough to listen to anyway.

One media delivered -- the other didn't. My experience was not unique. And neither was my inclination to turn off the radio.

- Ralph

Day 82 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A Zen Garden -- in O Gauge

I recently got back the train table I had as a boy (no, that's not it at right). It's a simple 3 x 5 table that my father built. Originally it held a circle of 027 track, with a figure eight in the middle. Nothing realistic -- just a place to run some toy trains.

In high school, the Lionel equipment got put away, and I worked on an N gauge model railroad. Because N scale is significantly smaller, I could build a much more elaborate system on the same table.

Now that I have the table again, I'm back to O-gauge. Which means it's really cramped on the table. Just two loops with one spur. And I'm modeling in tinplate. So what does that mean?

Tinplate means that I'm running toy trains rather than model trains. I don't have to worry about all the buildings being realistic scale models, or that the cars are exactly 1:48 scale, or that the box cars are the correct road names for the area I'm modeling.

And that's where the zen comes in. Because everything I put on this layout is my decision, and only has to make sense to me. I can make it as detailed as I want, or purely representational -- or even some of both.

How I choose to fill the space is something like working out a puzzle. Should a tree go there, or should I leave it open? Add a tunnel, or no? Have a road, or just a dirt trail? Put in another trackside warehouse, or perhaps add a house or two?

All small decisions, and no wrong answers. And there's no deadline. It doesn't matter if the layout isn't finished next week, next month, or ever.

So I work on it now and then and think about things. It's as relaxing as a zen garden -- albeit one with locomotives that puff smoke and have real whistles. And that's the way I like it.

- Ralph

BTW - the image is from the back cover of the Lionel 1957 catalog. It's always been my dream layout. Perhaps I'll build it someday.

Day 81 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Comic strips and the long goodbye

The reboot of Lynn Johnston's comic strip "For Better or For Worse" got me thinking about how some other long-running strips ended their runs. Here's how five other continuity strips handled it.

Dick Tracy - Like the characters in Johnston's strip, the cast of Dick Tracy aged and matured, albeit at a much slower rate. When Chester Gould started the strip in 1931, Tracy and Tess Trueheart had just announced their engagement. 46 years later, when Gould retired shortly before his death, they were a middle-aged married couple with two preteen children.

When it was clear Gould could no longer produce Dick Tracy, two people were picked to take the reigns. Max Allan Collins, a mystery author, became the new writer, and Rick Fletcher, Gould's assistant took over the art. Gould's final strip was for the Sunday paper, with no goodbyes. His name remained on the credits even after his death.

Terry and the Pirates - Readers watched Terry Lee grow up while wandering around China. When Milton Caniff started the strip in 1934, Terry was a young orphan of about twelve coming over with family friend Pat Ryan to claim his inheritance (stolen by the pirates of the strip's title). By the time Caniff left the strip in 1946, Terry had grown into adulthood and had fought in the Second World War as a combat pilot.

The Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News syndicate owned the strip and characters, not Milton Caniff, and when his salary demands were rebuffed, he quit. His final sequence ran on New Year's Eva, 1946. Terry says goodbye to a girl he's in love with. In the very last panel there's a poster on a wall, ostensibly celebrating the new year -- "Ring out the old, ring in the new." George Wunder took over the strip until its cancellation in .

Steve Roper and Mike Nomad - This comic started out as a humor strip in 1936 as "Big Chief Wahoo." Elmer Woggon handled the drawing, and Allen Saunders the writing. Steve Roper was introduced as a supporting cast member, and during the Second World War he enlisted. During that time, the strip became more serious and after the war, Big Chief Wahoo and his milieu were gone. The strip ran as "Steve Roper," for a number of years. Roper was a photojournalist and later a magazine editor whose nose for news lead to many adventures.

In the 1960's one of his war buddies, a trucker named Mike Nomad started taking center stage. Nomad was a little younger than Roper, and a lot more impetuous. He was eventually given co-billing. In the declining years of the strip (now drawn by Fran Matera and written by John Saunders), Roper retired and moved to Florida where he continued to have adventures for the Sunday strip. Nomad finally reached the end of the line when the strip was canceled. In the final sequence, Roper returns to New York to deliver a message to his old friend. The last words of the strip are Steve Roper's: "Mike, it's time to retire."

Steve Canyon - After leaving "Terry and Pirates," Milton Caniff started Steve Canyon in 1946. In many ways, it was a continuation of Terry. Canyon was an Air Force pilot who had several globe-trotting adventures, but more often than not ended up in Asia. Characters also grew over time, and when Caniff retired in 1988, so did Canyon.

An attempt was made to continue the strip by starting it over. Unlike Johnston's reboot, there was no new art. The last original panels Caniff did had Canyon dictating his memoirs, setting up the flashback to the first sequence.

Unfortunately, the size allotted to an individual comic strip had shrunk significantly over the years, and Caniff's intricate artwork looked like mud when squashed down to smaller dimensions. It was canceled after Caniff's death with a farewell panel signed by many of his colleagues in 1988.

Gasoline Alley - This strip is probably the closest to "For Better or For Worse" in many ways. It, too, involves the everyday life of a family. The characters age at a more or less normal rate, and there's a continually expanding cast of characters. Frank King began the strip in 1918, initially centered around a group of guys hanging out in the Gasoline Alley garage. Soon a baby was left on the doorstep of main character Walt Wallet, and the strip took a new direction.

The founding, Skeezix, grew up over the years, fought in the Second World War and raised a family of his own. When Frank King retired in 1951, his assistant Dick Moores took over the strip (although the masthead didn't change). He introduced some new characters and let some of the older ones go by the wayside. When Moores died in 1986, his assistant Jim Scancarelli became the new artist and writer. He, too, has introduced new characters and retires some of the ones that Moores introduced. The strip continues today, going in the same general direction it always has.

- Ralph

Day 80 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, September 01, 2008

For Better or For Worse - Better/Worse?

It was hard reading the Sunday funnies yesterday. It marked the final episode of "For Better or For Worse." As promised, after 29 years Lynn Johnston closed out her saga of the Patterson family. Long-running strips have ended before, but as far as I know, this is the first time one's been rebooted.

Lynn Johnston will restart the story of a much younger John and Elly Patterson with their (then) two children, Michael and Elizabeth, from the beginning. Although Johnson did a good job tying up the loose ends, I was sad to say goodbye to so many of the characters I've read about and watched grow up over the years.

It's not likely that Johnston, starting from the beginning of the Patterson story, will get up to the birth of April, so we've seen her for the last time. So too, all of her friends. And we've seen the last of Michael's wife Deanna (and her parents). Grandpa Jim's first wife will still be alive, so his second wife Iris will disappear from the strip. And so will Weed, Michael's friend from college, Gordo and Lawrence, his high school buddies, and Elizabeth's high school sweetheart (and later husband) Anthony.

"For Better or For Worse" is Johnston's creation, so she can do as she likes -- even end the strip. I respect that, but I'm still sad. I've enjoyed the Pattersons, their friends, and extended family since the strip started 29 years ago. I'm sure the reboot will be good, too, but I wish the story had continued.

Better for Johnston -- she's excited about working on the strip again. Worse for the reader -- we have to say farewell to some old friends.

- Ralph

Day 79 of the WJMA Web Watch.